"Centuries before, sailors feared sailing off the edge of the earth. But we were heading for the edge of sanity."
With so many differing incarnations of the Moby Dick story, it would seem that going back to the story that inspired the book would be a good way to explore new themes and characters to differentiate oneself from the original novel and multiple adaptations. The main problem that accompanies that is unwanted comparisons to the book, which in itself is a double edged sword. If the film is too different to the book people feel cheated as the primary advertisement was the fact that this story inspired Moby Dick, but if you are too similar then what was the point of using this story instead of just making a literal adaptation?
A former crewmember recounts events that took place in the winter of 1820. The Whaleship Essex is attacked by an aggressive sperm whale and the remaining crew must fight to stay alive against the unstoppable force of nature.
From the look of the trailer one could assume that this would be Ron Howard’s biggest directorial outing so far, full of destructive and epic scenes of a gigantic proportion as we witness an epic showdown between man and nature, a struggle for survival and nothing but a lone and damaged vessel as man’s weaponry. That is not the movie we are getting here. Primarily because that other movie that I just described sounds, at the very least, interesting even if it lacks depth and development. ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ in neither interesting, nor does it include a substantial amount of depth or development.
That is slightly unfair, as there is a good portion of the film (at least a third) that is enthralling. As the whale attacks the ship Howard’s direction is nothing short of magnificent as he injects a sense of fear and claustrophobia amid the destruction, he switches between hand held camera work to capture a sense of panic only to use a wide and steady shot of the destruction to maintain a sense of scale and magnitude, but also to remind you how isolated the ship is in the vast blue ocean, completely separated from human civilisation with nothing to support them. So many separate emotions conveyed during that portion of the film that it feel completely separate from the tedium that permeates the rest of the film.
Not only that, but the film manages to be incredibly convoluted in its tone, theme and story. ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ begins as a meditation on corporate ethics, before switching to a story about an action packed tale of man against nature but then shifts tones again as it takes a contemplative stance on survival. It shifts rather disconcertingly between these varying states and never underpins them with a captivating character. While the main actors Chris Hemsworth (only faltering slightly with an unreliable accent), Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland do a fine job of reeling in their own emotional perspective of the situation in front of them, they never quite develop beyond their simplistic forms. If they even come close it only occurs within the final act, and that it too long to deny emotional connection with a character.
Outside of the scenes of destruction the direction and cinematography takes a much less inspired tone. Like the film itself it seems overly crowded and uneven instead of trying to focus on any one thing throughout, that would be fine in moments of chaos but whenever the film tries to feel meditative it lacks focus and depth even in its visuals. Howard seems to lack the introspective directorial qualities to convey that for a sustained amount of time. That’s not a criticism of him as a whole, his films often need a sense of adrenaline, conflict and competitiveness in their tone to bring out their full potential. Just look at ‘Apollo 13’, ‘A Beautiful Mind’ or ‘Rush’ as films that exaggerate those themes and apply them to their narrative. While there are moments in which that can be exploited during ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ they are only briefly available and are replaced by the relatively uninteresting nature of the rest of the film.
‘In the Heart of the Sea’ lacks a sense of focus or depth to create anything other than a disjointed and simplistic film that moves ungracefully from one set piece to the next.